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Continuing the Fight for Voting Rights

July 30, 2013

(Ryan P. Haygood is director of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund's Political Participation Group, which works to promote the full, equal, and active participation of black people in the democratic process through legal, legislative, public education, and other means. He has represented people of color in a variety of actions involving voting discrimination, including challenges to discriminatory voting measures under Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the United States Constitution, and state laws.)

Headshot_ryan_haygoodIn June 2013, a significant provision of one of the greatest pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted fell. In Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act. This key provision identified the fifteen states and localities that were subject to Section 5 of the legislation because of longstanding racial discrimination with respect to voting.

Section 5 required those states and localities to demonstrate to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C., that proposed changes to their voting laws would not discriminate against voters of color -- before those changes were implemented. By striking down Section 4(b), the Supreme Court immobilized Section 5, which is like letting someone keep his or her car but taking away the keys.

The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. represented black community leaders from Shelby County and argued the case in the Supreme Court. We fought to keep these protections in place, and presented irrefutable evidence that racial discrimination persists in the places covered by Sections 4(b) and 5 of the legislation.

Passed by Congress at the height of the civil rights movement forty-eight years ago, the Voting Rights Act, and Section 5 in particular, has served as our nation's first defense against voting discrimination, providing a critical protection for millions of voters of color -- black, Latino, Asian American, American Indian, and Alaskan Native -- in those places where such discrimination has been the most adaptive and persistent. In a shameful opinion, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court made these voters vulnerable to new laws that could exacerbate voting discrimination.

The Supreme Court did this even though a bipartisan Congress in 2006 voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize Section 4(b) and Section 5 of the VRA. After hearing from more than 90 witnesses with a diverse range of views over the course of 20 hearings and evaluating a 15,000-page record, 98 senators and 390 members of the House of Representatives voted to reauthorize. In fact, among all members of the 109th Congress, only 33 House members voted otherwise. The court's ruling ignores the work of that Congress and establishes a worrisome precedent.

Indeed, the court's decision is nothing less than extraordinary, in that the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the explicit authority to determine how best to protect voters of color from racially based voting discrimination.

Notwithstanding the ruling, the long and difficult fight to ensure full voting rights for all Americans will continue. The legal team here at LDF, in partnership with other organizations, plans to take advantage of all available legal avenues and tools, including the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act, to challenge discriminatory measures that have already begun to crop up in the wake of the court's decision.

The public and nonprofit and philanthropic sectors can contribute to that effort in three critical ways:

First, with the key provision of the Voting Rights Act inoperative, you now are our eyes and ears on the ground. Within hours of the court's decision, for example, the state attorney general of Texas, where in 2012 Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was invoked to block a photo ID law and the state's discriminatory redistricting plans, announced his intention to implement those measures immediately. Officials in other states formerly subject to Section 5 also quickly announced their plans to institute laws previously blocked by the act.

Let these folks talk. But tell us about it. We encourage you to let us know of voting changes planned in your locality that you believe may have a negative impact. This might include a decision to move a polling place to a location that is difficult for community members to access; switching to at-large voting; redrawing district lines in a manner that reduces the number of majority-black or Latino (or other majority-minority) districts; shortening the early voting period; curtailing opportunities to register to vote; and/or implementing new voter ID requirements. We need you to collect stories about such changes and to share them with us at vote@naacpldf.org. You also can call the Election Protection hotline (which is maintained by a coalition of civil rights groups) at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

Second, help us harness our collective energy and direct it toward Congress, which can and must aggressively respond to the Supreme Court's ruling. Now is the time for us to reach out to our senators and representatives and urge them to make it a top priority to respond to the court's ruling by creating a new Section 4(b). The Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized four times -- and always with bipartisan support. We have done this before. We can and must do it again.

Third, join LDF, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King III on August 24 for a great gathering in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. Let's demonstrate to America that we intend to stand and fight for our rights.

LDF is committed to continuing the fight to secure the voting rights of all Americans -- today and into the future. Please stand with us.

-- Ryan Haygood

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